On Devastating Disappointment

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“Between stimulus and response there is space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” Victor Frankl, Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist

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How should we respond to devastating disappointment?

This is a crucial question for everyone in the quest for justice.

Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. But he also wrote a speech called “Shattered Dreams.”

The struggle for justice often involves the crushing collision of passionate hope and devastating disappointment.

For example, what if – I hope and pray not!!! – the abducted students we all ache for are not returned safely to their families? How will the hundreds of thousands of people out in the streets respond?

Like a nuclear reactor, the collision of hope and disappointment generates extraordinary energy within and between us. This energy often takes the form of fear, grief, anger, and rage.

These emotions are overwhelming, and they make us feel like we are bursting inside and breaking apart. We feel like we need to release them, to externalize them, to get them out of our system, lest they consume us.

But what will be the target of our outrage?

Sometimes we punch a wall. Or we scream at the air. We do this as an act of protest against the feeling of powerlessness that attacks us. We want to feel like agents – not helpless victims – once again. So we try to exercise mastery over an object to concentrate and overcome our anguish, if only a wall or the air itself.

But all too often, people become the target of our devastating disappointment. Our grief and rage easily transform into blame and condemnation of others, who we see as responsible for our devastation. We create scapegoats: people who can become the objects of our overwhelming disappointment.

We tell ourselves that if we punish them, we can overcome the emotions that have overwhelmed us. We hope this outburst of aggression will give us catharsis – liberation and healing – after we feel so internally ruined. Their humiliation or even their destruction is the key to our healing, we tell ourselves.

But before long, we have done to them what we claim they did to us. And like a spark in a dry field, our society is set on fire. A vicious cycle of blaming, condemning, and attacking spins out of control until an unthinkable mass violence has become normal to us. As Nietzsche said, we become monsters in our effort to defeat those we see as monsters. We become what we hate.

This is why we must ask about how to respond to devastating disappointment. If we are not careful, it will consume us and escalate into mass communal violence.

Of course, we must avoid a paranoid siege mentality, which falls victim to rumors and opportunistic conspiracies. But we should not underestimate the extremely dangerous situation in Ethiopia today. Emotions of grief, helplessness, anger, and rage are building. Small sparks could set the field on fire. The smoke is already rising.

How should we respond to devastating disappointment?

One constructive response is prayer. There are numerous prayers in the Bible where people pour out their devastation to God in honest words of grief, rage, and despair. Our homes, churches, and mosques need to become places where these prayers of lament are welcomed and where people can experience emotional liberation by pouring out their hearts to God.

Another constructive response is private confession to a trusted friend. We can say and release what we feel but without inflicting damage on others: “I hate those people! I can’t see anything good in them! I want them to suffer! I want to kill them! But I choose not to.” This private confession combines honesty and restraint: we say what we feel, which needs to come out, but we do it in a private setting where these violent emotions do not harm others, and we can receive the counsel we need.

A third constructive response is physical exercise and also mental exercise. For example, we can visualize Jesus being executed on the cross and saying, “Father, forgive them.” This forgiveness extends to us. But, if Jesus could say it about his murderers, it also extends to the ones we are most tempted to hate. Slowly the words come to our lips too: “Father, forgive them.” The rage begins to dissipate.

There are various strategies for responding to devastating disappointment. But we need to wrestle with this question: are we and our communities equipped to deal with devastating disappointment? Have our leaders prepared us to respond to devastating disappointment in constructive, healing ways? Or are we vulnerable to targeting others with our rage, until mass violence has consumed our society?

We see this throughout history; why should we assume we are better or less vulnerable?

The time is now to wrestle with these questions. The fields are dry with disappointment. Small sparks of additional humiliation, threat, and violence could erupt into catastrophic fires.

We should not be caught by surprise: How am I training myself and preparing to respond constructively to devastating disappointment? How is my community training and preparing itself for devastating disappointment?

In other words, how are preparing to break the cycle of violence and prevent catastrophe in our society?

The time is now.

Are we ready?

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